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The Instant by Amy Liptrot: Goodbye Berlin

Book review: A year in a foreign city brought to life by award-winning Scottish writer

Amy Liptrot ‘locates her subject matter, her internal conflicts, in the wider world’. Photograph: Lisa Swarna Khanna
The Instant
The Instant
Author: Amy Liptrot
ISBN-13: 978 1 83885 426 3
Publisher: Canongate
Guideline Price: £14.99

A mark of a good writer is the ability to turn whatever interests them into interesting material for the reader. Scottish author Amy Liptrot’s new book  is a case in point. In The Instant, she writes: “I’m interested in equinoxes and solstices, the moments when the planets and the years balance and tip, the instants when we come in and out of shadow.”

Whether she’s describing the cycles of the moon, the flight paths of migratory birds, or the addictive qualities of social media, Liptrot is always engaging; her thoughts considered, the language lucid and judicious. As with her acclaimed debut, The Outrun, a recovery memoir of sorts set on the author’s childhood home of the Orkney Islands, there is great depth of feeling in her writing, without ever being mawkish.

There's always a sense of arriving in Berlin just a little too late

One way Liptrot achieves this is to locate her subject matter, her internal conflicts, in the wider world. In both books there is a strong sense of place. In The Outrun, the harsh, beautiful landscape of island life formed the backdrop of the author’s struggle to overcome issues with addiction as a young woman. Now in her mid-30s, she is once again striving to understand her place in the world. Restless and curious, she leaves Scotland for London, doesn’t find what she’s looking for, and so moves on to Berlin, a city where no one is ever quite trendy enough: “There’s always a sense of arriving in Berlin just a little too late.”

What follows is a chronicle of Liptrot’s year abroad, who she meets, what she learns, and loses, how she ultimately recovers. The city is brought to life from the perspective of a tourist trying to make it her home. A job on a production line introduces her to other expats – “a highly educated bunch of factory workers, international wannabes thinking of other things”, mostly creative types who are all waiting for the email that will change their lives.


Aside from these fleeting connections, Liptrot lives a largely solitary existence in Berlin, excluded in part because of her sobriety, but mostly because she seems to prefer it that way. She goes to Berghain alone, making it past the bouncers, into the mess and funk of the enormous club – “on the dancefloor, I had the sensation that we were deep underwater, swimming in bass” – before ultimately tiring of being sober, leaving the revellers to it in favour of her bed.

This isn’t a depressing moment, but rather a realistic and well-observed description of a night out without alcohol or drugs. It reflects the tone of the book as a whole; refreshingly honest, written by someone concerned with truth as opposed to perception. Liptrot is a noticer of places, people and words. Although she gives up on her German language classes, she notes the ingenuity of compound words. The dash punctuation mark, der gedankenstrich, means “thought pause”, while nebelkrähe translates as “mist crow”.

Hooded crows, kestrels, goshawks, the 800 families of racoons that live mostly undetected in Berlin – it is clear from the way Liptrot writes about the city’s wildlife that you can take the woman out of Orkney but you can’t take away her affinity with the natural world. Among its other virtues, nature works as an antidote to the constant scroll of social media: “Spending time scanning a distant horizon or treeline gives my eyes a change and, after a while, I feel my vision clarifying.” Yet Liptrot also uses the internet to expand her knowledge of the creatures she notices, which shows how the two worlds can also complement each other.

Elsewhere, the negative aspects of social media leave her feeling disconnected in a foreign city: “I feel omniscient and thinly spread, my mind technologically enhanced yet fractured.” She likens the constant checking of dating apps to an addiction, the pings and notifications always reminding her of what she might be missing.

The final sections of the book detail an intense relationship with a German man, whose introduction in narrative terms comes too late to be fully impactful. Time fragments as the author goes back over seminal moments with this man, before a jarring shift sees her some years in the future with a new partner.

A far stronger impression is given of Liptrot’s reaction to the break-up, namely months of social media stalking; the letting go ever so much harder, it seems, in this digital age: “I said I’d just have a little look, just peep under the rock, then here I am down on my knees, muddy hands and sweaty face, scratching desperately for whatever I can find.”

The Instant is full of these kinds of strange, perfect descriptions by a writer who knows how to elide multiple worlds to illuminate the truths within each.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts